BOOKS: The Minotaur lurking in the shadows of Sixties London

The Long Firm by Jake Arnott Sceptre pounds 10
With his first novel, Jake Arnott has already become a minor cause celebre in the literary world. The obvious question is, then: does his novel, The Long Firm, live up to the hype? It's a pleasure to say that it does. In fact, I can go further: this gangster novel set (mainly) in Sixties London is one of the smartest, funniest and original novels you will read all year. It is a gloriously accomplished re-creation of the city in the era of the Kray twins, when aristocratic politicians mixed freely with gangsters, rent boys and actresses of dubious repute in a decadent demi monde. Arnott is quite brilliant at excavating the cultural minutiae of the time to bring the period vividly to life: a parade of "faces" from the day meander across these pages - including Tom Driberg MP, the corrupt landlord Rachman, Jack "the Hat" McVitie - and you can almost smell the Brylcreem, cigarette smoke and expensive gin.

But there's more to The Long Firm than well-observed cultural reanimation. Into this most macho of literary forms, Arnott slyly injects a camp and playful sensibility. The central character is the forbidding figure of Harry Starks, a homosexual gang boss who bears more than a passing resemblance to Ronnie Kray. Starks, notorious for his sadism, his manic depression, his love of young boys and the music of Judy Garland, is a compelling figure whose charm and ruthlessness pulls all sorts of characters into his dangerous orbit.

The novel describes the trajectory of Harry's life from the early 1960s to 1979, but it is divided into five successive sections, each narrated by a different character. It is a structure that is elegantly labyrinthine: Harry might be central to the text but remains elusive and enigmatic throughout, a Minotaur lurking forever in the shadows.

Arnott is in his element as he re-creates the multi-faceted social and cultural circles of pre-swinging London. There's a Diana Dors-esque blonde actress whose stuttering career occasionally crosses into prostitution; or the corrupt, homosexual Tory politician Lord Thursby, recently elevated to the House of Lords but whose hunger for easy cash leads him to accept Harry's dubious favours with predictably unfortunate consequences. Only in the final chapter does the novel move outside its mid-Sixties milieu as Harry, incarcerated at Her Majesty's pleasure, takes up study as a means of keeping himself sane. In a triumphantly hilarious conclusion, the second-rate sociologist who arrives to teach Harry finds himself intellectually out-muscled by his Foucault-reading pupil who then blackmails his hapless tutor into helping him flee the country.

The novel's finest moment occurs in its mid-section when the narration is assumed by the gangster Jack "the Hat" McVitie, a washed-up former associate of the Kray twins who is moving inexorably towards his nemesis at the hands of Ronnie and Reggie. A genuine tour de force, this chapter sees Arnott indulging his love of the minor details of the period as Jack staggers through his final days, delivering pills, getting high on speed and stumbling through town making all the wrong enemies. In a particularly witty touch, Arnott has the unfortunate dealer influencing the burgeoning youth culture of the times: as Jack jigs his way through various night- clubs, delivering purple hearts, french blues and black bombers to the kids while feeling paranoid about his baldness just when the whole world is growing its hair, he comes across the nascent ska scene and its skinhead followers, who are so impressed with Jack's old-school gangster style that they appropriate his signature pork pie hat for their own look.

In an episode reminiscent of the movie Performance, this chapter also features a darkly comic LSD trip, as Jack comes badly unstuck when he tries acid with some posh hippies in Hampstead. In fact there's more than a touch of Nic Roeg and Doug Cameron's film about this excellent novel, with its psychotic gay gangsters, lairy mobsters living large, and the tricky games it plays with character and narrative. And like Performance, Arnott has achieved something very rare with The Long Firm: he has created a crime story that owes very little to the American practitioners who traditionally dominate the form. Instead he has created a gangster story every bit as cool, stylish and venomous as the London in which it is set, an English original, streetwise in its lingo, and as sharp and lethal as a Savile Row lapel.